I have heard this phrase quite a few times and I am curious what is the origin of this phrase?

  • 1
    The phrase is usually something smells fishy and occasionally gets shortened.
    – Catija
    Feb 9, 2015 at 16:14
  • Welcome to ELL.SE! And, as the answerers mention, etymonline is an "exasperatingly" awesome source if you wanted to check for something's etymology. :)
    – M.A.R.
    Feb 9, 2015 at 16:35
  • 5
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's about etymology, which is suitable for English Language & Usage. Jan 26, 2016 at 5:33

2 Answers 2


etymonline tells us:

fishy (adj.)
late 15c., "fish-like, slimy," from fish (n.) + -y (2). In reference to taste, from 1540s. Sense of "shady, questionable" is first recorded 1840, perhaps from the notion of "slipperiness," or of giving off a bad odor.

So it either refers to the tendency of fish to be slippery, meaning they cannot be trusted to not slip out of your hands, or it refers to the notion that fish tend to start smelling after a while.

Since we also use the expression that something smells fishy, I would assume that the odour-link is the most likely: fish, and places where fish is sold, tend to be associated with bad smells.


This is a reference to the fact that fish products do not smell bad until they begin to spoil, but may look completely fine.

In other words, something feels wrong in a way that isn't completely obvious.

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